"Rosamund made a mad dash, didn't she?" remarked Robert, idly, over the paper he was reading and did read every morning of every day for as far back as Mary could remember. Of the family, only his first two daughters were seated at the breakfast table with him.
"She took the ten o'clock. She said she missed London and wanted to get back as soon as she could," offered Edith, obviously not certain this was the truth, but not willing to speak directly to the real reason.
"She waited for the second train, of course," her sister pointedly remarked, as she drank from a cup of coffee. "So there wouldn't be any awkward meetings."
Sighing, her father lowered his paper to address them both.
"I hope she wasn't too cut up about this business with Hepworth. Between that and everything else that's happened—" He shot his firstborn an apologetic look. "Well, at least we have a chance to prove Bates is innocent, anyway. And now that Murray's looking into the case and things have quieted down, we might finally get some of the peace we were so sorely lacking at Christmas."
"Or at least a brief respite, I'm sure." She paused for a moment before continuing, "By the way, Papa, Matthew and Isobel are stopping by later, so I took the liberty of inviting them to luncheon. I hope you don't mind."
Her father blinked in surprise, but a second later he was smiling at the prospect of seeing Matthew, as he always did.
"Of course not! But when did this plan come to be?"
"I hope you squared it with Carson and your mother—"
"Of course." She had told her mother about the Crawleys coming, just not…the other thing. She wasn't sure exactly why herself. Maybe it was because it had been so long since she'd had a happy secret, one that made her giddy and excited and was difficult to keep. She barely remembered this feeling. Perhaps she'd never felt it before.
Mary wasn't quite ready to part with it yet.
"I'm always glad to have them, of course…but it does seem strange for he and Isobel to come up again, so soon, when it's snowed like this." He stood up to check the weather outside the window. Outside a soft blanket of near blinding whiteness covered as much of the estate as it was possible to see.
She would never be able to look at snow again and not think of the impossible coming true.
"I gather he wanted to talk to you about something."
"Oh?" Robert's voice lilted with curiosity. "Any idea what?"
"Oh, I don't know, perhaps his plans to move back to Manchester?" She rose from the table, elegantly. "I'm going to go write a letter to Sybil."
Mary gave her father an airy kiss on the cheek and glided across the room as serenely as she'd entered it. Neither Edith nor Robert saw her small and secret smile.
"Ah, Mr. Crawley—we were expecting you, of course. But I was under the impression Mrs. Crawley would be joining us as well. Did the motor not make it…?"
He trailed off, noticing that the young man was very distracted. He was staring up at the ceiling, the walls, the paintings, and the furniture as if it were the first time he'd ever set foot in Downton and he thought it the most wondrous thing he'd laid eyes on in his life. The butler cleared his throat, dragging Matthew out of the apparent reverie that meditating upon a ceiling fixture brought.
"I don't know, but I'd imagine it will, Carson—" His voice was strangely jumpy and energetic. "Only I—I got rather tired of waiting and I decided to walk."
"…In the snow, sir?"
Carson was one of those rare people who had mastered the art of politely casting judgment with the subtlest of inflections. This did not go unnoticed by Matthew.
"In the snow, yes. I erm—I wanted a bit of fresh air, you understand."
No, why a sensible young man would trudge through half a foot of snow for lunch when he could just have easily driven was not something he understood. He watched the normally fastidious Matthew absently brush snow off his coat, still grinning like an idiot.
Mr. Carson's hope of the morning renewed itself.
"Of course, sir."
"Listen, Carson—" Matthew lowered his voice. "I need a word with Lord Grantham, and I was wondering if—"
"Why Matthew, whatever are you doing here?"
Both men turned and snapped to attention at the sight that greeted them: Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham, wearing a dark sable wrap that Carson was removing gently before she even had to ask.
He froze. What had they agreed on, last night?
"You've no idea how…excited I am to tell everyone."
"Are you, dearest? I'm not sure I am. I like having our own special secret."
"…I doubt I'll be able to keep this a secret very long, Mary."
"Neither can I, truly, only…" He remembered this exchange being punctuated by some—embraces. "They'll all be so unbearably smug. Granny worst of all. Can we at least put off telling her until dinner tomorrow night?"
"Ah, Cousin Violet—hello. What are you—I mean, how are you?" He fumbled, desperate to think of something natural-sounding to say to her. From the way she was looking at him, Matthew felt sure she thought he was a bit touched in the head. "That is—did you have a pleasant evening last night?"
"Oh, I always enjoy the servants ball. But then, who doesn't enjoy 'letting loose', as they say?" This was said with conviction of one who believes "letting loose" should be a yearly treat, like Christmas or the opening of Ascot. "But you're back again rather soon. Are you expected?"
"I—yes, I am. And mother is, as well," he added, quickly (too quickly.) He had hoped this would deflect suspicions that anything was odd. It had failed spectacularly.
"Is she? I suppose it's to be a family party, then. You'll let someone know we've arrived, Carson?" He nodded his head and exited, presumably to inform Lord or Lady Grantham. "I assume you've come for the same reason I have," she added to Matthew, in an undertone.
"And…what reason is that?" he swallowed, thickly.
Just then, like an angel from on high, Mary appeared at the top of the stairs, and he was spared from any further verbal blunders by virtue of being rendered quite incapable of speech.
For just a second her face lit up in perfect euphoric bliss, and he knew for certain that last night had not been a dream. She was there, she was beautiful and beaming and she was to be his wife. Having heard him in the foyer, she had rushed to the staircase, moving with an eagerness that his current mood more than matched. He ached to touch her, to hold her, to prove again and again that she and this were real.
Then she rounded the corner, saw who was standing beside him, and stopped dead in her tracks.
"Granny?" Mary was momentarily baffled. "Whatever are you doing here?"
"That's the second time in as many minutes I've been asked that question," Onto her face Violet affixed the expression of the eternally hard done-by. "One would almost think I wasn't wanted."
"You know that isn't what I meant. It's just that you aren't expected, particularly this early. It's unusual for you."
Having recomposed herself, her granddaughter shot a quick cheeky glance in his direction in Matthew's direction. His stomach pleasantly flip-flopped, and he desperately bit back the urge to kiss her. They had agreed he ought to tell her father first—he wanted to do things 'properly'—
"I am sorry to drop in unannounced," The Dowager Countess continued, not sounding apologetic in the slightest. "Only I wanted to get the news first hand, from Rosamund."
"Aunt Rosamund took the ten back to London." She met his eyes, silently saying, "I suppose we're still in the clear." "I don't think she could stand to face you."
Her grandmother emitted an irritated scoff in the back of her throat.
"I don't see why not. All I did was speak my mind."
"Don't you always?" A new voice joined the fray, pleasantly amused.
It was living proof that the car had managed to plow its way through the snow surrounding the Abbey—Isobel having bundled up in a sensible coat and taken it.
"Mother—" Matthew smiled, delighted, as she walked through the door, removing her gloves with that brisk and artless efficiency that so defined her. "You made it."
"Of course I did, dear—" She turned to the younger woman, hanging back with her grandmother, and beamed with similar delight. "And Mary, dear!—"
Isobel walked towards her very deliberately, but, eternally aware of her grandmother's powers of perception, Mary tactfully sidestepped her.
"Matthew, why don't you and Granny go into the library, I think you'll find Papa there, and you can see about when luncheon will be—" Thankfully, he took her hint without question. "I'll see to Isobel getting her coat taken by Carson."
"Of course—" Matthew raised his arm in a feat of improvised gallantry, and one she could hardly refuse. "Cousin Violet?"
Reluctantly taking his arm, the Dowager gave Mary one more shrewd look before allowing him to lead her down one of the long galleries.
"…I take it she wasn't invited?" Isobel dryly remarked, watching the retreating backs of her son and the Dowager as they exited the scene.
"Granny likes to capitalize on the element of surprise. Forgive me for cutting you off, Isobel—" There was so much that she wanted to say, and yet at this moment she could say nothing. It did not seem that her dumbness struck Isobel as anything but natural, for she merely smiled encouragingly. "He has…told you, then?"
"Oh, my dear, sweet girl—" The dam burst at last, and the older woman embraced her with what she instantly recognized as a warm and sincere delight. Unexpected relief flooded her, and she returned it, holding on the other woman as if her life depended on it. "I'm so happy for you."
She had not known how much Isobel's approval mattered to her until she had it.
"So am I." Mrs. Crawley's wool coat muffled her voice, and Mary was glad of it, for she knew that it was unsteady. There didn't seem any point in not crying a bit, she rationalized, however soppy and ridiculous it made her feel. Isobel's coat was wet, anyway. "I've never been this happy in all my life. And I'll try so…so hard to make him happy."
"I don't think you need to try, Mary."
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